Which? invited Ed Miliband to say his piece about consumers today to a group of us who had come in out of the early morning cold and wet – breakfast supplied – for the meeting at their Marylebone Road HQ. Ed started by reclaiming Which? for the Labour Party referring to the late Michael Young and the Which? founding myth centring not on a stable but a garage in Bethnal Green. Enough of history – what of now? The ‘squeezed middle’ reappeared amongst us as being the victims of the “Surcharge Culture” which is in turn a consequence of Predatory Capitalism.
What Gets Ed Going?
5 things got Ed’s goat:
- Bank charges NB overdrafts – this was something a Financial Conduct Authority had to address pdq and not be a Lapdog but a Watchdog!! (Which? campaigning message)
- Control of the costs of train travel – making the inflation +1% cap a reality across all fares and all routes and why not car parking charges as well
- Energy markets – where a six supplier stranglehold made a nonsense of claims that this was a properly functioning competitive market place and where the older digitally disadvantaged consumer is barred from the most advantageous online tariffs.
- Low Cost Airlines – no more surprises to be allowed when suddenly late in the booking process, large new elements are added to the original tiny fare
- Pension Administration Charges – where dignity in retirement is protected by not allowing excessive admin charges swallowing up too large a slice of pensions.
There you have it. As an early questioner – your man from MAC – made the point that these were all private sector examples. Could Mr Miliband perhaps tell us how he wanted to strengthen the user voice in the public sector e.g the NHS? Ed acknowledged that this was something that past efforts had not got right and we need to look at it some more.
In the spirit of the age, we took questions from a Twitter stream – one of which asked bluntly how he felt about the London Tube drivers holding Londoners to ransom with strikes. The answer hovered for a moment on the edge of falling into the Ed Loop trap – the only thing my twenty- something children brought up when asked for their ideas on questions for Ed. There were other interventions on the limits of choice and action on behalf of the vulnerable and other plugs for Which? current campaigns. I guess the entire Policy and Campaigning team at Which? were under a three line whip to get up early and be there.
Resurrection: A Minister for Consumers
Perhaps the most interesting question that gave some hint of the future was the one from the Which? editor who asked Ed directly whether he intended to appoint a Consumer Minister to co-ordinate the consumer interest across all departments. Ed said he would think about it. What goes around comes around. The last time Which? worked so closely with governments in the ’70s- both Labour and Tory – was what we see now was the highwater mark of the consumer movement’s influence – a Department of Prices and Consumer Protection with a Secretary of State rooting for the consumer cause, an Office of Fair Trading founded (one for the Tories) and grants for Advice Centres plus new legislation. (This government support included – I can tell you now – a secret rescue plan for Consumers Association and Which? were it to go bust at a time of skyscraper inflation when costs were outstripping the organisation’s capacity to raise subscriptions.) Ed said he would think about it. (Which? these days is doing fine financially.)
Get Your Soundbites Here
Did this all sound exciting and convincing? The five issues listed were all good, easy and populist targets on the list but a bit scattered and disparate while staying well away from the public sector. It does not yet add up to a strategy – merely plums plucked from the Which? campaigning hit list. We ended on the note of Ed deploring the Fast Buck Culture – ground that Ed claimed he had occupied well before Cameron – and the squeeze on living standards.
The man needs a bit more than this to light his fire and indeed ours as voters. Can he start by doing some classic engagement and participation work with people in his own Party? Develop his own empathy and connection skills that will convince first his friends and then his enemies and capture the trust of the uncommitted that when he says he is on the side of whoever – whether it be squeezed middle or squashed bottom – they believe it. Then there will be some feeling and meaning behind the easy epithets and the self-consciously twee soundbite – dogs, laps, watch etc. Meantime, Which? will continue to do their thing with their usual energy and impetus – offering their shopping list of issues to all callers of whatever political hue. Ed should stay in touch.